Earlier this week The first batch of five French-made Rafale fighter jets has arrived at an Indian Air Force (IAF) base. Five brand-new Indian Air Force Dassault Rafale fighters recently touched down at Ambala Air Force Station in Haryana, India. Two Indian Su-30 fighters escorted the Rafales as they entered Indian airspace.
Why India’s New Rafale Fighter Jets May Not be the Best Choice For The Indian Air Force
The Indian Air Force has a long history of operating European military aircraft, most notably the Mirage 2000 which until the induction of the heavier MiG-29 in 1985 was considered the country’s most capable fighter for air to air combat and was relied on to counter the growing F-16A fleet of neighboring Pakistan.
Soviet and Russian jets came to comprise a greater proportion of the Indian fleet from the 1960s, and these fighters were far better placed to contend with American aircraft sold to neighboring Pakistan as European platforms tended to lag behind in performance relative to those of the two superpowers.
A part of the Indian inventory was nevertheless reserved for British and French jets. Of the Indian Air Force’s thirty four fighter squadrons today, these include three squadrons of Mirage 2000 fighters and five squadrons of Jaguar attack jets – or 26% of Indian squadrons with the remaining being Soviet or Russian designs such as the MiG-27 strike fighter or MiG-29 multirole fighter.
In 2015, having gone over thirty years without an import order for non-Russian and non-Soviet fighters, the Indian government signed a highly controversial deal worth €7.8 billion ($8.7 billion) to acquire 36 Dassault Rafale ‘4+ generation’ fighters from France – a platform designed to replace the Mirage 2000 in the French fleet.
India was the first client to show major interest in the Rafale, which had been in French service for almost 15 years with little success at promoting it overseas.
At well over $200 million per fighter, the aircraft was far from cost-effective even by European standards, with the United States and Russia developing and exporting far more sophisticated and heavier platforms such as the F-15E and Su-35 at a fraction of the cost.
In terms of combat capabilities, the Rafale was a medium weight fighter comparable to but more sophisticated than the MiG-29, which was considerably outmatched in its performance by heavier fighters built around specialized air superiority or strike airframes. While the aircraft integrated an advanced active electronically scanned (AESA) radar, the small size of the radar relative to those fitted on heavier aircraft such as the J-20 or F-15SA limited its performance.
Although the fighter was marketed as a highly manoeuvrable platform, engine performance was substandard with French engine technologies appearing to lag several decades behind the United States and Russia with just 75kN of afterburner thrust seriously limited manoeuvrability when fully loaded and contributed to the fighters below-average speed of Mach 1.8. Lack of thrust vectoring, which had begun to be integrated onto Russian and American jets in the 1990s and 2005 respectively, were also absent on the Rafale which further limited manoeuvrability.
The French fighter’s altitude limit was extremely low by the standards of medium weight aircraft at little over 15km, meaning even other medium jets such as the MiG-29 and Eurofighter could fly considerably higher – let alone heavy platforms such the Su-30 and F-15 which were designed to operate at 20km altitudes.
The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been repeatedly criticized by the opposition for the Rafale deal, with the capabilities provided somewhat limited, and the costs of the acquisition considered highly excessive. While supporters of the Rafale acquisition have claimed that the fighter would be the most capable in the Indian inventory, this claim remains highly questionable particularly when the aircraft is compared to the Su-30MKI – which currently forms the bulk fo the Indian fleet with twelve squadrons in service.
This advanced Russian ‘4+ generation’ air superiority jet is among the most capable platforms of its generation in the air to air combat, with its performance specifications exceeding those of the Rafale across the spectrum. Able to reach speeds of Mach 2.25, the Russian jet is 25% faster than the Rafale and can operate at altitudes over 30% higher. The fighter further deploys a 40% higher weapons payload and retains considerably superior maneuverability due to two-dimensional thrust vectoring. Furthermore, the Rafale’s payload of air to air missiles is extremely limited with the fighter currently compatible only the MICA for longer-ranged engagements – an aging medium-range design with an 80km range and limited electronic warfare countermeasures relative to more modern platforms.
The Su-30MKI, by contrast, is compatible with some of the most capable air to air missiles developed, including the 110km range R-77 and 130km range R-27ER for long-range engagements and the 400km range K-100 designed to engage heavier targets at extreme ranges. The Rafale is slated to deploy the European Meteor missile with a 300km range, though this has yet to be successfully integrated onto the French airframe and its capabilities remain questionable given European manufacturers’ lack of experience with such advanced and long-ranged munitions relative to the U.S. and Russia.
The Su-30MKI is also expected to deploy a new missile in the near future, the R-37M, with a hypersonic speed of Mach 6 and 400km engagement range. The R-37 is currently deployed by Russian MiG-31 Foxhound interceptors and is the fastest and longest ranged munition of its kind.
The advantage in quality of armaments further extends to the air to ground and anti shipping roles, with nothing the French platform can deploy being remotely compere to the Mach 3 BrahMos cruise missiles deployed by the Su-30MKI. New variants of these missiles are set to field hypersonic capabilities in the near future – with no remotely comparable developments in munitions announced for the Rafale.
Despite the overwhelming superiority of the Su-30MKI, the Rafale’s cost is over four times as high and the Russian platform. Furthermore, the European jet cannot be jointly manufactured by India in any significant capacity and thus fails to further the goals of the Make in India initiative – where the Su-30 is not only jointly manufactured but in the case of many batches is fully built in India and modified to integrate indigenous Indian technologies.
While the Su-30 has proven versatile enough to integrate systems from Europe, India, and Russia, the Rafale, by contrast, is restricted solely to European armaments with even U.S. and Indian systems incompatible.
With at least 14 Su-30MKI squadrons already planned, purchasing more of these jets may well not be the best option for the Indian Air Force should it seek to maintain the diversity of its fleet. Nevertheless, the Rafale remains far from an ideal choice, with many alternative options for medium and light fighters far more attractive in terms of performance and cost effectiveness.
These include the Russian MiG-35 and American F-35A and F-16E which in the case of the first two boast far superior capabilities to the Rafale at a considerably lower cost. The MiG-35 for its part surpasses the Rafale’s capabilities across the spectrum, integrating comparable sensors with an AESA radar of its own and three-dimensional thrust vectoring systems for manoeuvrability unrivalled by other jets in its weight range. The fighter’s compatibility with the active phased array antenna (APAA) guided K-77 air to air missiles and extremely low maintenance requirements further make it attractive, as is Russia’s willingness to transfer technologies, adjust the design to suit Indian specifications and manufacture the aircraft jointly.
While the F-35 has a number of drawbacks including high maintenance and heavy reliance on connectedness to an American centered network – which at times poses a serious security risk to operators – the fighter’s advanced stealth capabilities and powerful sensors make it a force to be reckoned with and one of the most formidable platforms of its weight range. It is also cheaper and arguably far more cost-effective than the Rafale.
Modernisation of the indigenous HAL Tejas single-engine light fighter design which entered service in 2018, a light AESA radar-equipped jet with capabilities in some ways comparable to the American F-16, is another option which could yield perhaps the most cost-effective results for the Indian Air Force and the best for its defence sector. Ultimately while options to replace the Rafale are many, acquiring further batches of the extremely costly fighters remains far from the best choice for the Indian Air Force to modernize its fleet’s capabilities.